Ruins of a houses are seen after an earthquake in the city of Varzaqan in northwestern Iran, on Saturday, Aug. 11, 2012. (Photo: AP)
The United States said Monday that its citizens can donate food and medicine to Iran without fear of prosecution after the heavily sanctioned nation was hit by twin earthquakes.
President Barack Obama's administration has offered US assistance to Iranian victims of Saturday's disaster, despite its campaign of economic sanctions against the clerical regime over its contested nuclear program.
"Our hearts go out to those people who are affected," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters.
"Americans wishing to provide humanitarian assistance to Iranians during this time may donate food and medicine without obtaining an Iranian transactions regulations license," she said, referring to sanctions exemptions.
Nuland said that "certain non-commercial personal financial transactions" to Iran remained legal.
She said that the US offer of assistance "stays on the table," even though Iran's government has said that it does not need foreign help.
The National Iranian American Council, an advocacy group for the US-based community, has called on the Obama administration to ensure that relief efforts "are not obstructed due to the dispute between the US and Iranian governments."
It said that president George W. Bush's administration in 2003 issued a general license to allow relief organizations to provide assistance to Iran after the Bam earthquake killed some 31,000 people.
The Council "strongly supports a similar and hopefully more robust effort by the Obama administration today," it said in a statement.
The National Iranian American Council said that the US sanctions are often poorly understood, with banks, shop clerks and even the US Postal Service sometimes believing that they cannot deal at all with Iran.
Obama has ramped up economic pressure on Iran in hopes of dissuading Israel from a military strike against Iran. Israel fears that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon, although Tehran says its program is for peaceful purposes.
Obama sought dialogue with Iran early in his term. A White House condolence message for the earthquake was addressed to "the Iranian people" and not the government.
Officials said the earthquakes in northwestern Iran killed 306 people, most of them women and children, leading to fears of a disease outbreak.